If you ever run across a group of serious readers, those people who see books as magic carpets and TARDIS boxes that guide us to understanding, you will always find they accord certain books special significance. “This book,” they’ll say, “was my world at one time. This is the book I picked up, read and re-read for weeks. This book dominated my imagination. It changed the way I looked at life, at least for awhile. I’m a different person now for reading it then and reading some of it now takes back to when it was new.” For me, one of those books is The World According to Garp by John Irving.
Garp’s first wave of popularity had already crested when I first picked it up. It was one of the first “adult” novels I read as an adult. As a precocious reader I had consumed many adult volumes before then (YA lit was a thing of the future) but I approached those stories from the perspective of a child with parents and authority figures to tried to regulate my reading. I doubt if any of them would have recommended The World According to Garp . Luckily, I didn’t have to sneak-read John Irving’s novel once I picked it up but by the came account, I couldn’t skip over the explicit and violent aspects of T. S. Garp’s life just because they were explicit and violent. There was something about the narrative (like its hero) that demanded acceptance on its own terms. Oh, there’s plenty to laugh about in Garp (Doesn’t the adult life hold laughter?) but it is laughter in the face of experience, not the innocent silliness every age can enjoy. Actually, one of the themes in The World According to Garp suggests is that laughter is a miracle that occasionally occurs in the face of life’s experiences. One of the miracles that make us keep living.
Another great lesson in Garp is acceptance. Garp has to accept his mother’s choices in life, the vagaries of fate, responsibility for his own mistakes, when they come, and the outcome of others’ mistakes as well. It’s a hard lesson and one I need to relearn from time to time: mistakes are always going to be made. What we do with that knowledge and how we react to it measures how much joy we allow to stay in our lives.
Garp’s other certainty is death and the last line says “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Yes, but before there is death, there is life, lots of it, if we’re lucky. Life, with all of its potential for laughter, sorrows, lunacy, serendipity, ambiguity, tragedy and ennui, perhaps even transcendence and art. It’s a heck of a ride, suggests John Irving. Worth the price, according to Garp.